Jack Honzo had long ago engaged in an un-winnable battle that cost him his life. It was on Earth in a fairy tale land where once upon a time we all lived on the same planet and grew up there as a species, but it’s a dead planet now. We unleashed technological horrors beyond our control thinking that we were doing good and instead annihilated everything. Now Jack Honzo has no memory of that last stand, but he does recall his initiation into the newly forming defense league at the time when all things started to fall apart. It was a local mesh experiment that helped to farcast as many souls off the planet as humanly possible and even managed to send his backup into space.
That backup was long ago captured as a closed off info-morph traveling as an asleep piece of information, never being accessed or having access to the server. Floating across oceans of space to be traded over as a massive hibernating infomorph data file that was picked apart by buyers, hackers, loved ones. Eventually the file “Jack Honzo” appeared through a picking to a few people interested in anyone with leg work in security and electronics. Honzo made their list and kept trucking as data to be used at the drop of a hat. Trickling down amongst several other egos selected for specific tasks Jack finally, and luckily, made it into an Exalt sleeve.
Coming online was an interesting process as the sleeve was a big fit for Jack and he felt slightly alienated in the new body. The fingers twitched slightly, and when he moved his body lagged. For the most part though it felt great to be alive enough to breathe air, and feel the rush of blood. The ID recognition on his screen split apart and his mesh was tuned to the wrong one suddenly, like a screen glitch. Instead of Jack Honzo, which was who he was, it was set to some Mordin Kind. He had no idea who that was and his muse, Rhodes, was sheepishly loading files that told him that he was set to a different identity to grant him access to the ship he was on.
Ship? His eyes were going over the diagnostics of his body. He wasn’t strapped down and so continued to stand, with some effort he was looking across an ego-bridge lab. Several sleeves lined the walls in vac-tubes hibernating away in cold storage waiting for their day of need. He was in a body closet he realized as he looked about. Suddenly electronic data surged through his eyes like magnifiers streaming in arrays of information readings raining into sight. He began to sweat and his pulse quickened at the discomfort of data overload, but was quickly dampened by Rhodes’ rasped self-assurance,
I got this.
As he cooled in the sweat dribbling from his forehead he turned the other way while the information signatures and mesh readings significantly dropped from a pulsating miasma to bearable VR tags and ID spimes. A window on a far wall looked out to the stars beyond where sight could no longer go, even with the enhanced optics that he toyed with at the present. He stumbled to the viewing port and searched the stars for a moment, finding the planet Mars about the size of a quarter, when the sudden shuffling of a man coming towards him caused him to react, albeit lagged.
Spinning around Jack came eye to eye with a tall Menton. His imposing figure was immediately apparent and Rhodes’ Forward Psychology and Kinesics readings started to register a troublesome equation. Bald bulging head with the dual signature silver streams running from the back of the skull over the forehead down to the top of the coin sized discs he had for eyes. The man wore a lab coat with no mention of any indicators that he was actually a doctor. Beneath the coat he had a black bodysuit on – insulated for vacuum protection and comfort. Across his face the stranger donned a carnivorous smile and as Jack peered down to his extended hand the sharp teeth parted to let out a slither-ingly sophisticated, “Shaymuh Hoontz.”
“Where am I? Whats going on?”
“Your aboard a scum hive ship, The Black Claw. In transit to Mars with intentions of making trade routes and money. I’ve brought you back because I have a task I can’t do alone and I think you may be the man for the job.”
“What? The last thing I remember was…the defense league on Earth.”
“Yes. You casted your backup into space over ten years ago as a large data-life upload that slowly snowballed across the solar system as people pecked away at it. No one seemed to be able to accommodate you, until now. I have use for you and I have a body for you. This Exalt is relatively new and I built in some specs that I think will help you in the not so distant future. I’ve also equipped you with a new identity because your going to need access to the ship and only a few IDs will work in here. So now your a scum hacker that got caught on Mars somewhere stealing millions in crypto-cred. His name is Mordin Kind. His real soul is locked up in cold storage so the only story you need to give people is that you were re-upped and happened to make it aboard. Easy. Got it?”
“Wait why am I here? Why me?”
“Theres a saboteur on board The Black Claw. I’m almost certain he’s hypercorp backed. I haven’t been able to track him down, but I think you may be able to help.”
“Im no detective. What am I going to do?”
“Get to know the crew. Here. This is a smart-swarm that I need you to plant on the bridge, which as a technical engineer I don’t have open access to. As Mordin Kind you can make it there and plant the smart bots. From there we can determine which people have come by and if anything is off, which I have a firm feeling it is.”
“Why is a scum ship routing to Mars?”
“She goes under a much more professional identity in certain parts of space. Towards the inner system not many autonomists have the opportunity to escape off world aboard a ship unless something like the Claw were to swoop in and pick them up. She hits most of the stations that revolve around Mars and gets a lot of people around. During the Fall the Black Claw was a search and rescue ship. She operated inside Earth orbit helping to evacuate LEO citizens. Although the Claw was known to harbor criminals, illegal refugees, and political dissidents many were desperate for the ride. But since the Fall the Black Claw has made her rounds within the inner system acting as a courier, transport, and scum hive ship. She is currently captained by Li Lin Tzu, a revered space reaver in the Belt that now has a legitimate life as a space trader.”
“Who would sabotage the Black Claw?”
“The answer may be more obvious than I fear. If the Black Claw were to be put out of commission it would open all sorts of doorways for others to profit from the loss of such a needed vessel. Other Captains with a grudge, some elite looking to knock out two birds with one stone, or just a simple mad man could all be reasons I can think of. Regardless if we can prevent any such events from occurring not only would the Black Claw remain a trusted beacon in the inner system, but her crew’s Rep might be salvageable as well. Many wanted criminals reside inside her belly after all, I being one of them.”
“Damn. I suppose I don’t really have a choice.”
“No Mister Honzo. You do not.”
“What should I do if I find anything?”
“I’ll contact you in two days. That locker there has stuff in it for you. I must be going now. Ship needs looking after. Walls have eyes, ears, noses, and teeth these days.”
Whilst pointing at a locker in passing the strange Shaymuh Hoontz made for the exit and was gone. The feel of the locker as he opened it felt grainy, then adjusted to the cold metal. Inside the locker clothing and weapons were waiting for him. He geared up while Rhodes read off diagnostics about ship readouts and crew verification. As he left the alienation of the ship wrapped around him – the confinement started to ping a natural claustrophobia as he crept through passageways and stepped into conjoined body parts that made up the maze of the ship’s interior body. The Black Claw was very large with crews and joined forces numbering in the hundreds each.
He made his way to the nearest food fabber dispensaries in the kitchens which Rhodes plotted in glowing blue footsteps in front of him. As he followed the path the ship came to life with random spimes pinging his vision alerting him to ship part statuses, and then the occasional artificial would roll or crawl by on its singular mission elsewhere. He didn’t encounter another living soul until he reached the kitchen, where pandering inside was just a few people there to catch a bite.
The ooze that dispensed out of the fabber was a slurry of pastel colors, topped with what would pass as a square of yeast roll. The tray wobbled slightly as he grasped it around the edges. Slowly he cautiously made his way to a stool along a vacant bar. As he sat he began to enjoy his food when the doors to the kitchen parted again and a group of scum entered making a racket.
The first gruff and heavy voice boomed out of an impressive set of lungs, “What with all the shipments we’ve been bringing ring side our little Claw will be in a full new suit in no time.”
The second voice was chirpier than the booming voice, but still sounded slightly inhuman,“We’ve got to make the exchanges first Mortz or its just a lot of crap.”
“Hah!” boomed Mortz,“Your always thinking we’re going to get stuck out here and no one will want to come and help us. Well I got a bet. I bet you Mortz’s blaster for all of Malloy’s pea shooters? HAH!”
With the last laugh suddenly the bar in front of Jack was inhabited by a huge stinking Neo-Gorilla. The thud of his land made Jack jump and the unexpected eye contact from such a large and alien being horrified him for a moment. Then the Gorilla started tossing bottles into the air and filling glasses to accommodate himself and his three friends. The tensing pulse at Jack’s temple quickened to a relaxed beat as he watched the Gorilla launch the glasses down the bar; each sliding cleanly into the hand of a greasy looking splicer, a techno-houndedly looking hacker, and the paw of another neo-chimp.
“Mind making me a drink?” Jack asked meekly.
“Make your own drink stranger,” the huge neo-ape bounded off to sit with his friends.
Jack watched for a brief second noticing the techie noticing him. Then the borg was pointing at him suddenly and all four heads aimed at him. The neo-gorilla hopped the counter a second time. With graceful movement he was in front of Jack unloading a full drink into a clean glass which he politely placed it in front of him.
“Mordin Kind? Haven’t seen that tag in a long time. What’s up pal?” the great ape pondered.
“Not much. Just got re-upped at the last second. Made it out. To the land of the living and now I’m on ship with one of my insured bodies. Presto.”
“Well hell’s bells! HAhAHA! Come sit with the rest of us!”
With that “Mordin Kind” grabbed up his new food tray and made up with four old friends whom he’d never met before in his life. They lunched for a brief period and went over old stories about things that amazed Jack. This Mordin Kind really was revered amongst scum at the least. He came to know the neo-Gorilla as Mortz the personal comm liason to the bridge. The neo-chimp was Malloy a VR specialist that worked with some of the crew. The greaser was a splicer named Devon, and the techie was a spacer and mesh-worker named Static. All “reminded him” of a story they each shared with Mordin Kind.
With assurances that he was welcome on the bridge their lunching came to an end with them returning to their signature duties aboard the ship elsewhere. The Mordin Kind ID could probably take him anywhere on the ship he realized. The “new” crew members each VR tagged their homes on Jack’s mesh-map, and proceeded to leave afterward.
Upon the walk to the exit another person came strolling through, her ID set to a cool blue, but as soon as mesh contact was established the blue burned into a fiery pulping red. The ID read Sarah Clantz, but in real time she did not wait another second before jumping into Jack’s arms to plant a kiss on his lips.
“MORDIN KIND!” as she ripped her fingers through his new hair.
The two were obviously thoroughly engaged at one point, so he wasted no time getting to know her. She did pose as an easy insider for anything he might need doing in the future. Getting into the role seemed only natural.
“And so close to Mars! Imagine my luck! You are the most…!”
“Yes. I’m back baby. It’s been a good minute, right?”
“I knew the law knabbed you back then but I never thought I would see you again! Your in a sexy Exalt now!”
“Seeing is believing baby. And believe me. What I’m seeing right now. I like.”
“Come back to my room with me.”
With that there was no delay. The new identity-life was already literally pulling him places he did not expect to go. He’d almost forgotten entirely about the creepy Hoontz he’d met earlier, or the weird crew members he’d encountered. All he could focus on was the full on episode of this erotic woman, an encounter that lastly was experienced in some forgotten timeline, on a forgotten world. The flesh and the mind combined to make a perfectly unforgettable experience that was the best welcome he’d received yet aboard The Black Claw.
When he was allowed to leave he made many promises of calling and returns, but a whole day had passed almost entirely in the company of Miss Clantz and he was starting to worry he might miss an opportunity. Jack maneuvered about with the feeling of rejuvenation in his bones. He made for the bridge of the ship while thumbing the small smart-swarm bulb in his pocket.
There was fair amount of traffic moving about the ship today. Several morphs of all types jumped down corridors, flying through the zero-g with ease. Jack practically crawled about, clinging to the bars for the most part. He made it through the maze with Rhodes’ help and upon approaching the deck areas found all of the doors activating for him, the security barely taking notice.
The deck was wreathed in stress. The Captain sat at his chair one hand over his eyes and forehead, the great Neo-Gorilla was barking orders over the comm, and Static typed away frantically on a six-set of VR boards. Many other personnel were relaying commands and orders through comms and across the room. There were several peons and servitors managing relayed messages and data-files, or refreshments to their respective owners. Several artificials crowded certain people’s feet relinquishing issues of demand from their outright straightforward programming. There was simply so much going on in the room that it took little effort to hide the nano-swarmbulb in a spot that no one was paying any attention too. He programmed them to launch in a few hours and to delete themselves after bursting their find directly to him through an encrypted network. He left the bridge then to wander the ship for a while.
In almost a few hours his mail pinged. A message from Sarah Clantz had arrived. It read, “Need to show you something weird.” Connected to the same message was her comm, which he connected too.
“Mordin? This channel is encrypted.”
“Yes it’s me. What is it? What’ve you’ve found?”
“Meet me on the hull of the ship. By the antennae array.”
The comm channel faded and died. Jack fabricated a helmet at a standard air-lock. The Exalt was extra insulated for vacuum so no suit was necessary and he did have the mods to take a walk, but comfort of helmet would do. Stepping out onto the hull of a ship for the first time in years was marvelous. The feel of the zero-g, the cling of the boots to the floor, the baby-like feeling one geeks out on when they first step into outer space.
He made his way to the antennae pole to find Sarah waiting at the very end of it hundreds upon hundreds of feet away. She waved down to him and he waved back. The crawl to the end of the array was revealing as all sorts of details about the hull came into view. Dozens of other ships were moored by docking ramps to the sides of the Black Claw. She was almost like a mobile space station and the spires that poked off at random intervals gave her a very creepy feel. He finally made it to Sarah who he could tell was smiling through her helmet.
“I found something weird. I’ve never seen anything like it. I want to scavenge it but I thought I’d show you. It’s definitely not ours so I think its just really old. Here have a look.”
Sarah bypassed a few layers of clutter and plate material from the exterior of the antennae to reveal a small box. It was well hidden amongst the detriment and fine wire nervous systems. Jack reached over to touch it and have a better look at it. It was hard and the angled surfaces were sharply made, a few wires ran out of it that attached to nothing. Some sort of Gray Box he deduced.
“Don’t mesh into it. It’s got something wrong with it.”
Pulling Rhodes up he began a conversation in his mind.
“Lets go in. I want no intruder alerts pinged. Nice and clean. Got me Rhodes? You back me up.”
Sarah watched as Jack pretended to know what was going on and began to look around with his wrist mounted tools telescoping out occasionally to touch around the corners of the small box. She crossed her arms and sighed over the mic. In the back of her mind she reminded herself that Mordin always was a weird guy.
Hacking through the VPN secretly was easy. Rhodes watched for any signals that were transmitting as they ducked around the simple main frame corners of the box. The small device had dozens of transmitting channels all too encrypted to read. The only channel with the least resistance to access was the admin account. He tried to jack in with Rhodes’ assistance, but during the hacking procedure they were spotted and failed to break ground. They continued to hide from a brief AI scan that registered on alert. After evading detection for a moment Jack decided to simply run a trace on where one of the encrypted signals was running to and found that it was just at the base of the antennae relay he was at. He pulled out of the whole VR sequence just then and fell back into normal vision. Turning to Sarah he tugged her along back down the antennae.
As they flew to the base of the Black Claw his smart dust information beamed to him as they all bleeped out of existence. The packet readings were tremendous and the time to go through it all was going to be lengthy, so he stowed the information for a moment and made the rest of the jump down the spine of the antennae tower. At the base he made her wait for a moment while he made calculations with Rhodes’ mathematical computations reading off numbers to him.
Two more steps to the left and three more steps to the right buddy.
With his wrist mounted tools he unbound a plate, scrapped over some junk underneath to find an large sphere sized device, with naught but a small readout bar on the outside. This was it. Whatever that box was connected to and it had no other IDs or spimes attached to it this was it. The device was a complete ghost, and the transmitter was locked on a bunch of these scattered on different encrypted networks throughout the ship?
That feeling you get when realization begins to dribble through your body and that tingly effect of adrenaline and fear mix together to make a miraculous sensation was now fogging Jack’s mind. It was a bomb. He pulled his head together and quickly began cycling his smart dust information looking for anything he could pin something down too.
“I’m heading in Sarah. I’ve got to report somewhere.”
He left her on the edge of space and made for the nearest airlock. Rhodes was backlogging info through as many filters as he could handle to see what came up in the info database. The whole time Jack was climbing down spider walks and sealing airlocks behind him, covering ground quickly. When he made it on board he started the long trek to the bridge all the while helping to double check possibilities that Rhodes wasn’t sure about it. There were a few electrical devices that were candidates he would have to check physically, pieces of equipment that were installed only days prior to his awakening date.
As he moved towards the inner part of the ship he cross referenced new personnel that had entered the bridge within the past 48 hours. Only a few IDs appeared. One was a comms tech specialist who kept tabs on the antennae array, whose reports were all sqeaky clean. Nailing his judgement to his conviction Jack opened a comm to Captain Li Lin Tzu and the bridge.
“Sir, you’ve got an intruder whose planted a device on the bridge of the ship by Mortz’s module! He’s also rigged The Black Claw with explosives end to end! Heres his ID! Scramble men to arrest him immediately!”
The Bridge became alarmed with racket and noise, but the cool voice of a human came in over the comm, “Very well Mordin Kind. Report to me ASAP.”
He would report to the Captain in due time. First he decided to try and track down the morph with the ID he was speculating to be using – who was also drawing a blank on the internal Mesh network of the ship. He was ghosting the mesh. He was some sort of genius hacker to be able to just click off like that. Jack made his way to the comm room for further investigation. Upon entering all seemed fine, a few personnel were at their stations directing relays to other ships and personnel. A neo-chimp wearing a comm suit proudly barked over the way from his station, “Don’t touch anything!”
The chimp’s beady eyes glinted off the low light of the comm room, auto-focusing and IR reading. The chimp seemed more on guard than any other passenger he had yet to meet. Rhodes psychology readout signified a slightly hostile demeanor. Suddenly Rhodes flight personnel checklist began to flash and the muse started reading out disturbing information into Jack’s headspace.
Looky here boss. Got something a lil juicy. I just cross checked the flight manifesto, which is hella large, and of the nine personnel deemed applicable for a job on the comm staff only three are registered as being on board. The disturbing news is that the other six were on board no more than a week ago but have gone missing since. Checking with their registries and everything seems fine up until certain dates when their life-logs seemingly auto diminish and all signs of their presence are erased from the ship.
Jack abandoned the comm room and made for the bridge to check on some of the objects that the smart bots had swarmed but could not identify. Upon breaking ground into the bridge room he immediately made for Mortz’s terminal. The large neo-ape was not at his terminal, but several other agents aboard the bridge watched and made no motion to interfere. Captain Li was absent as well when he looked about to the faces that watched him.
Kneeling down at Mortz’s terminal he got Rhodes to help him identify the piece of machinery the nano-swarm couldn’t make sense of. It was slaved on to Mortz’s primary as a subsystem with override procedures built in to it. Jack and Rhodes carefully dissected through the programming and found that the same piece of equipment had signatures bound to the same signal as the Gray Box on the antennae array. Ripping the slave device off the panel Rhodes started registering a warning and the item in Jacks hand now had a red outline around it with exclamation points surrounding it and beeping noises echoing out of it. Suddenly the room rocked, and the sensation of a rippling effect vibrated through the whole of The Black Claw. It was an explosion somewhere towards the back of the ship.
Emergency lights started flaring out of quarter sized portholes in the ceiling and walls. Loud blaring emergency information started echoing not just through the mesh but also on old loud speaker systems built in to the walls and ceilings of the ship. The feeling of panic began to take over everyones minds and mass mesh info told Jack that most of the personnel were fleeing for escape pods. Memes of death and doom were everywhere all of the sudden. Rhodes dampened all the noise and chimed in,
Boss the device is being mass pinged! It’s coming from the comm room!
Jack bounded through the zero-g with a feral pace. People of weird varieties reeled by, their faces frozen in terror or screaming at the top of their lungs for the others to move faster. Jack could only concentrate on moving through them getting from one bulkhead to the next. When suddenly he had to enter a passage that was cut off, the vacuum on the other side had pulled out all of the interior and the decompression had knocked out the lights. He dropped back to the last bulkhead and over-ran the relay through the mesh to close the door and decompress the room. The emergency system responded. He donned his bioware sealing his nose, mouth, and ears with extra skin; a thin glossing of membrane grew over his eyes fully sealing him, and inside his chest the extra oxygen emitter began to tank out allowing him to breathe for emergencies like this.
Crossing through the vacuum he wasted no time locating the comm entrance. The door’s hydraulics made no noise in the vacuum, all he could hear was the occasional release of air through tiny bioware transmitters around his face somewhere. When the door opened the low light of the room revealed a person in a full soft-suit typing away frantically onto a keyboard. Jack opened a message box through the mesh, transmitting a VR face to the stranger to talk directly at him.
“STOP! What are you doing!”
“I’m ending it! The Black Claw will burn over Mars! An end to Scum dominance in the inner-system! Die Scum bastards!”
Jack pulled out a spider climber gun and drained a little of the silk to try and pull the guy away from the terminal. The silk smashed into his suit, but when Jack pulled back it was like pulling the pin that holds the air in an inflatable doll. The string ripped his suit and the decompression began to kill him. As Jack dragged him through the darkening room he noticed the man had a cylindrical object in one of his hands. With his dying breathe the man was pushing a button down with his thumb, until the full effect of vacuum took hold and he suffocated did he not get one last chance to really press down hard on that button.
The explosion in such close proximity jiggled through Jack like fear under a freight-train. Rhodes’ mesh info became blocked with so much sensory detail about how his immediate surroundings were compromised it became hard to see. Life support failure, long range communications failure, main Data Vault failure, Medical Bay failure, Public Mesh Feed failure, almost all of it was bad.
Jack could see out the left window and saw nothing but stars. The right window had the pixelated detail of red Mars steadily growing more picture perfect as he realized where he was headed. Gravity began to settle in as they entered the atmosphere of Mars making the floors and walls more tangible, and certain objects became attracted to the gravity. Boxes fell off shelves, chairs shifted under their own weight, heavier objects had to be considered, and suddenly he thought of a plan.
He moved towards the center of the ship, dragging the dead astronaught with him. In a room in the most middle section of the boat he hunkered down in a seat, strapping his buddy down next to him; praying that killer radiation didn’t find leaks into his room before it mostly burned off the hull from atmospheric entrance; along with a mildly quick thud of a crash-landing.
Staring at the ceiling Jack said aloud, “What a fuckin day.”
How bout a drank?
And The Black Claw descended down to the surface of Mars. A brace of a dozen plus ships tracked her movement and slowly released cables and emergency lines as the Claw entered a point of no return phase in it’s descent. A red trail bled through the Mars horizon as the Claw cut the sky open. The smaller boats that had fallen off the side of their mother scum hive-ship rallied in space, and decided what to do next…